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Context:

“Maybe if I weren’t so repulsive-looking—maybe if I were pretty like you—”

“Mother’s not a bit pretty; she’s beautiful,” Charles Wallace announced, slicing liverwurst. “Therefore I bet she was awful at your age.”

The plot:

The girl Meg was upset because she thought herself repulsive-looking and she was not so popular at school.

Her younger brother (which was very talented) comforted her saying that maybe our mother looked awful when she was young, but she turned out to be a beautiful woman.

Question:

The boy stressed that "Mother's not a bit pretty", why he stressed the fact that mother was not pretty but beautiful? There must be some difference between these words in the context. So I take to this forum for some thoughts, thanks.

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    You might check some dictionary definitions. Beauty is considered deeper than prettiness. Dec 20, 2021 at 18:28
  • Yes but is the sentence implying that the boy had some reasoning on this? Since our mother is sooooo beautiful that she might looked awful when she was young?
    – district12
    Dec 20, 2021 at 18:36
  • Charles is teasing his sister. Dec 20, 2021 at 18:38
  • thanks i think i understand what the boy was coming from.
    – district12
    Dec 20, 2021 at 18:52
  • A young girl's prettiness may not last, but a beautiful face probably has a good bone structure and expressive eyes. However, it seems rather an exaggeration to say that a beautiful older woman may have looked 'repulsive' or 'awful' in her youth! Dec 21, 2021 at 9:33

2 Answers 2

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The word “pretty”, to a native English speaker, has a slight connotation of frivolity or childishness. Very small children will often describe animals as “pretty”. To describe an adult woman as pretty can be borderline demeaning.

“Beautiful” describes something or someone that possesses true beauty, in an artistic sense.

Katy Perry (and Kitty Purry) might be described as pretty. Gal Godot is beautiful.

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  • I disagree with both of your assessments, which goes to show that the old saw about the eye of the beholder has truth. Dec 20, 2021 at 20:09
  • To me (non-native speaker) "beautiful" simply seems a bit more "objective", i.e. has beauty beyond perception of any particular individual. Dec 21, 2021 at 0:22
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There are two elements that could be confusing:

  • "Pretty" and "beautiful" are similar in meaning, with "beautiful" being stronger. Charles Wallace follows a pattern that we sometimes see elsewhere in which someone first negates an idea, then intensifies it (e.g., when opening a present, "No, I don't like it... I love it!"). When he says "Mother's not a bit pretty," it might sound like he means the opposite of pretty, but when he continues, "she's beautiful," he clarifies to mean that she is more than pretty.
  • Charles Wallace claims that, since their mother is beautiful now, that she was "awful" as a girl. This seems an odd logical conclusion, but then Charles Wallace is an odd boy. The next line in the book is: "'How right you are,' Mrs. Murry said. 'Just give yourself time, Meg.'" This seems to confirm Charles Wallace's claim.
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  • I think the first point is significant here. He is saying Mother's not [a bit pretty]. He's not saying Mother's [[not a bit] pretty]. This wouldn't be ambiguous in speech, but can be in writing.
    – Colin Fine
    Dec 20, 2021 at 19:57
  • @ColinFine Your point is very true in general, though I'm not sure it's true in particular here. I think C.W.'s idiomatic use is akin to the phrase "Not a bit of it!" as a general negation. IMO he's just intensifying "not pretty," with the distinction between "pretty" and "beautiful," rather than distinguishing between "a bit pretty" and "very pretty." (If the preceding conversation had been "Maybe if I were a bit pretty like you," that would be altogether different.) Dec 20, 2021 at 20:06
  • I think you're right Andy - I didn't look again, and assumed he was echoing "a bit".
    – Colin Fine
    Dec 20, 2021 at 20:47

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